They were always something of a conundrum to me. An indie outfit from Blackburn called Bradford, who at the time the North West of England showed the way with the late ‘80s Madchester scene, didn’t quite fit the baggy bill with their skinhead image.
What’s more, local press did something of a hatchet job after the band spoke in less than glossy terms about their down at heel hometown, at a time when Thatcherism had taken its toll on the area.
But you only have to go back and listen to debut LP, Shouting Quietly, to remind yourself what great songs they wrote. And while their adventures in rock’n’roll were somewhat short-lived, they’re back now, carrying on where they left off 29 years after splitting, new single ‘Like Water’ the first release from the Bright Hours album, due to land early next year.
Bradford’s 21st century re-imagining involves just two of the five-piece behind that debut LP, but Ian Hodgson (vocals) and Ewan Butler (guitar) are now joined by Stephen Street, the London producer responsible for Shouting Quietly as well as key Smiths, Blur, Cranberries, Morrissey, New Order, Babyshambles and Kaiser Chiefs LPs.
It was Stephen, off the back of a successful collaboration with newly-solo Morrissey, who signed the band to his fledgling Foundation label back then, praise following for their ‘intelligent and distinctive, finely crafted pop songs,’ as Sounds put it in May 1988. That first LP wasrecorded over ‘three intense weeks of creative endeavour’, released in March 1990 to critical acclaim, international tours and shows following with Joe Strummer, The Sugarcubes and Morrissey himself, the former Smiths frontman covering their debut 45 ‘Skin Storm’ at the height of his fame.
Those factors should have been enough for commercial success. But then came the rise of the all-covering avalanche that became known as ‘Madchester’, Bradford’s brand of sharp English pop no longer the order of the day, the band without a label by 1991, ‘adrift again’ and soon going their separate ways.
Back they came in 2018 though, Thirty Years Of Shouting Quietly seeing the debut album lovingly remastered and re-released in a 30-song collection on Turntable Friend Records, re-appraised as a ‘lost English classic’, setting the cogs in motion for Ian and Ewan to record again, finding the original magic alive and well. Confident in a clutch of new songs that were identifiably Bradford by blueprint, they contacted their former producer, and it was game on.
As Stephen put it, “When I brought the original Foundation Label to an end in the ‘90s and Bradford disbanded, I often wondered what happened to the guys in the band, particularly Ian and Ewan, who I regarded as the mainstays. So, although a huge amount of time had passed, and it was a complete surprise to hear from them last year, it felt completely ‘right’ to get involved and help bring the idea of a new Bradford album to full fruition.”
With an album’s worth of material ready in waiting, Stephen’s studio expertise and resounding confidence in the tracks proved to be the catalyst bringing Bright Hours into focus. And as Ian put it, “To see Stephen’s familiar frame leaning over the control desk in quiet concentration once more after three decades was for Ewan and I nothing short of amazing. Amazing too was to hear the results. The songs I’d written seemed to become almost immediately wider, brighter, deeper, shinier as soon as Ewan and Stephen bent their ears then began their alchemy with them. They’re like diamond dogs – they hear things I cannot hear in them.”
I caught up with Ian and Ewan at the latter’s home studio set-up, ‘in a place called Blackburn,’ according to the former. Ah, I’ve heard of that, I countered.
Ian: “Yeah, it be a place where there be monsters! It’s on the edge of the world. Don’t sail there.”
I’ll bear that in mind. And to save us from visiting in these socially-distanced times, I asked if they were planning on touring the new songs when it’s safe to do so … sometime this century.
Ian: “Oh, my word. We’ve not really configured that in, to be honest. I mean … you’ll know Stephen Street, of course … well, he lives in a place called London …”
I’ve heard of that as well.
Ian: “Yeah, and it be a long way away … so logistically it’s not that easy for us to rehearse. But we’ll wait to see what’s happening. If we start selling half a million copies of Bright Hours … And we want Elbow to have us as a support at Manchester Arena. Then we might get a band together.”
Did you two stay in touch after the band split?
Ewan: “We always maintained contact, and always been good friends. There have been times when I wasn’t living here and Ian’s been doing other stuff, but our paths would cross from time to time. In the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve seen more of each other, and always got on well, had that kind of vibe.”
What about former bandmates John Baulcombe (keyboards), Jos Murphy (bass), and Mark McVittie (drums) – were they out of the picture?
Ian: “We don’t talk about those three! We’re gonna draw a discreet veil over that. Ha!”
Ewan (realising that won’t sound quite so funny in the cold light of print): “There isn’t any animosity.”
Ian: (catching up) “No, there isn’t!”
Ewan: “It’s just that we kind of lost touch. They don’t live local to us anymore, and over the years they never really expressed any interest in doing any work with us.”
Well, thankfully, that Street fella knows his way around the odd instrument.
Ian: “Oh, my word, does he! He’s played some great parts on the album, and this is it, really. We were cracking along in the studio and sending stuff down to Stephen, who took everything to a new level, fixing and mixing, adding performances on certain songs with his bass. It’s been fantastic.”
It’s been quite a year for it. There was reformed late-‘70s/early ‘80s new wave outfit The Vapors, from my hometown of Guildford, Surrey, with a first album in 39 years. Then we had under-sung indie faves BOB with a remastered eventual release of what should have been an LP release in 1992. Both corking records. Now this, a second Bradford LP, three decades after the first. What kept you?
Ewan: “I left Blackburn after Bradford split up, which was about 1991, Ian started working with other bands and went off with different artists, doing different stuff. So it never really arose as a realistic kind of possibility of us working together until 2010-ish.”
Ian: “I was offered a support slot for Glenn Tilbrook at Blackburn Museum, and at that stage said to Ewan, ‘Fancy doing a couple of songs for old time’s sake? So we started doing ‘Skin Storm’ again, stuff like that. That was the spark. A record company got in touch, did 30 Years of Shouting Quietly, and that got us into playing again and recording together. I shared it with Stephen (Street) on the off-chance, he loved it, thought it was great and got involved in a really deep way, became a band member. And here we are now.”
Was it unfinished business? Were the songs borne out of ideas that hung around over the years, or was it freshly put together?
Ian: “I live my life through song. I constantly write, not just to make records. I write a couple of songs a month maybe. They flow through me. I had a lot of music and it was quite a process – 30 years of bloody songs! I’m not joking, over 300 songs, and presented them to Ewan. Well … not all of them. And we came out with what we thought was a real strong set. Stephen sequenced it, and if you play your cards right, you’ll get a copy at some stage!”
Talking of your solo days, my pal Jim – a Blackburn lad who’s been to a hatful of gigs with me this past quarter-century since I moved up north – recalls you supporting former Bible frontman Boo Hewerdine in the unlikely rock’n’roll setting of Tockholes Village Hall. And I gather you borrowed Boo’s guitar to join him on a number.
Ian: “Yes, in fact, I saw Boo again at Darwen Library Theatre a year or so ago, supporting Chris Difford. It was a bit of a challenge really, that night. It was a bass guitar, and I didn’t even know the song. He was shouting out chord changes, and when somebody’s shouting ‘D’, it sounds really similar to ‘B’ or ‘E’! But I thought I did okay.”
Well, he didn’t tell me you disgraced yourself. He also told me that part-way through the evening he saw the curtains flap, and someone turned up with a Chinese takeaway. It’s clearly a long way in rock’n’roll from Montmartre with The Sugarcubes to Tockholes.
“Yeah, man. Actually, seeing as you mentioned The Vapors before, me and my missus saw them at Portmeirion on their reunion, doing the New Clear Days album. Absolutely fantastic! There’s a picture of me and (lead singer) Dave Fenton. I was a big fan.”
Clearly a man of great taste. And here’s another link to my past, fellow WriteWyattUK interviewee Jo Bartlett reminding me Bradford were one of the only bands to play her Buzz Club at Aldershot’s West End Centre twice. At the time I was writing my Captains Log fanzine, dispatching a couple of friends to do a review in my absence at the April ’89 date, as I was holidaying in Portugal. But I was there for your November return. Jo told me there were around 170 punters first time, but my diary suggests far fewer when you returned.
Ewan: “I do remember those shows. Yeah, first time it was quite full, but second time it wasn’t as well attended, possibly down to the fact that the music scene was in flux at the time. We were slowly being edged out.”
There’s a kind of irony in that – when the record industry finally woke up and took an interest in the region, they were looking for a different kind of band.
Ian: “When we first played the Buzz Club … we’ve got a poster, and The Stone Roses played five weeks before us …”
Indeed, they did. I was there.
“And it was £2.99 to see them. Then we played in April, and … drum-roll moment … it was £3.49 to see us. So we were 50p bigger than The Stone Roses at the beginning of 1989!”
I’ve seen that poster again recently, via Jo’s Indie through the Looking Glass website, with you billed as ‘Morrissey’s favourites’.
Ian: “That’s right, and it was a pivotal moment. Their album had just come out when we recorded Shouting Quietly in Wales that June, and I remember listening to their album, being kind of jealous – a bit snippy. When you look back, it’s cheeky, but there you go. It’s stood the test of time. And that became the big thing, but we weren’t dancey and weren’t groovy.”
You weren’t The Charlatans, were you … you didn’t quite fit that profile the A&R types felt they wanted.
Ian: “Correct. And that saw us off really.”
Where was the studio you recorded at in Wales?
“Loco, not far from a place called Cwrt Bleddyn, I think.”
The inflatable WriteWyattUK Ordnance Survey globe identifies that long-gone studio as not far from Newport, Chepstow and legendary Rockfield Studios. Was that recording process an enjoyable experience?
Ian: “An amazing experience! We were all off the dole, and all of a sudden proper professional musicians. It was a glorious summer and although it was only three intense weeks – recording, mixing, the whole shebang – Stephen worked like a Trojan. One of the highlights of my life really.”
There was clearly something in the air. That following month I met my better half in Turkey … and that’s why I’m in Lancashire now. And our first gig together? Seeing you at Aldershot Buzz Club that November. And we’ve now been together more than 30 years. I can’t put that all down to you, mind.
Ian: “Well, that’s a good story! I like that – get that in the article!”
The LP finally landed nine months later, I still have the vinyl, and it’s totally stood the test of time. Tracks like ‘Always Torn’ jump out, with a kind of Orange Juice feel.
Ian: “Interesting. Nobody’s ever said that before. I’m a huge fan of Orange Juice and Edwyn Collins. That kind of fey feel, and he’s very lyrical.”
Listening back, I hear something of Elvis Costello and the Attractions on various tracks. Not just because of Ian’s vocal delivery. And on second single, ‘Adrift Again’, which also really stands up now, there’s almost a feel of old East Anglian favourites, The Farmer’s Boys.
Ian: “My word. I don’t even know who they are … but I was going through a wordplay phase, and ‘To Have and To Hurt’ is a bit Costello-ish. So, well spotted – I was very influenced by Elvis Costello. I think he’s one of our best songwriters.”
It’s heart on the sleeve, heartfelt, and – talking of wordplay – opening track ‘Greed and Peasant Land’ is veritably drenched in it!
Ian: “it is! Yeah, it was a phase. We’ve moved on a bit!”
Don’t take this wrong, but there’s a lovely kind of naivety, if you don’t mind me saying. The lyrics were certainly impassioned, not least the opening verse, something of a statement of intent …
‘I dragged my butt across the town, past empty mills and sad fashion clowns; I walk this Land of Dope and Tory, that would be funny if it wasn’t so true’.
Good to see we’ve moved on in three decades, eh?
Ian: “Yeah, right mate! It’s probably just as relevant.”
Was that written about your hometown?
Ian: “Yeah, we were part of the Blackburn Escape Committee, I suppose. We had an interview in the NME with Sarah Champion. She was lovely, wrote for a Manchester magazine as well. We were very honest about our experiences in Blackburn and the local paper picked up on it, did a hit-piece on us. We got really vilified for that.”
Ewan: “We did. I had someone come up to me in a pub, threatening me. The repercussions were quite significant.”
Ian: “Yeah, I got death threat phone calls! Ha!”
It says on the inner sleeve, ‘Bradford, North of Manchester’. Got that compass fixed yet? And while you’ve probably been asked this 100 times, what was the thinking behind the name? That’s almost provocative in itself, taking the name of another mill-town on the other side of the Roses’ border. How did five lads from Blackburn become Bradford?
Ewan: “The name goes back long before I met Ian. I was working with another singer, when I was about 16, and it was very much a bedroom kind of low-key, ‘let’s make a band’ set-up. The name was something he proposed, and kind of stuck. As the band develoed, others joined, and the name was never really addressed as an issue. Then, before we knew it, Morrissey said what he said, and we were kind of stuck with it. To be honest, if a band’s successful, they take ownership of that name – it becomes something bigger than the connotations of what people might want to make of it.”
Ian: “I mean, who’d have thought a band called The Police would be big? Nobody really warms to that as a name, but it didn’t stop them guys. In this day and age though, I wish we picked something else – if you search ‘Bradford’ online, you come up with Bradford bands and their city council. But it was just a hard name … a bit strange-sounding.”
Ewan: “And it has a kind of working-class element to it, which tied in with where we were at.”
Ian: “It was short of any pretensions. There was no glamour.”
A group of lads (and fellow WriteWyattUK interviewees) from nearby Colne whose debut LP followed in 1991 claimed a name that may have fit better – Milltown Brothers.
Ian: “Yeah! Actually, my friend Paul, who has a studio in Lancaster, is working with them again. They’re recording new things as well.”
Glad to hear it. Great band. There was something else that perhaps jarred in some quarters though – the skinhead thing. That probably confused a few people.
Ewan: “In what sense?”
Well, many of us understood the fashionable roots of skinhead culture and a love of Bluebeat, Motown, ‘60s ska, soul, and so on. But there was also the menacing, moronic right-wing mentality of some of those adopting that look.
Ewan: “Fortunately, we’d all grown up with exposure to excellent music, from punk to soul to 2 Tone, and were aware of that kind of music, so it was a development of that kind of vibe. It was never about right-wing, Skrewdriver-type connotations. It was very much related to soul.”
So were you reclaiming that look back from the fascists?
Ian: “Absolutely, and Ewan’s brother Kevin was a proper skinhead who worked with Martin Hewes from The Redskins, printing Socialist Workers Party magazines down in London. We’d go see The Redskins a lot. We loved them. It kind of came from that really.”
Ewan: “We always had that exposure to that kind of ska, early skinhead music, so it was a natural kind of thing … and it’s still a great look, I think.”
Ian: “It was more like a hard Mod thing. I was never impressed by the bonehead kind of MA1 (flight) jacket, shaved head, tattoos on the face, stupidly-long Doc Martens. Come on, man – that’s not cool, is it! I’d rather have loafers.”
Only one band pulls off the DM look, I reckon – WriteWyattUK pin-ups The Undertones.
Ian: “Undertones! Fantastic!”
Back to questionable right-wing sentiments though, and I have to ask about your old pal Morrissey. I imagine it was quite a rush initially to get that plug from him though, in turn offering a tour support.
Ian: “Yes, we played Wolverhampton Civic Hall, his first solo gig, where we first met him, becoming friends. He’d come round my house quite a lot, send postcards, ring me on a fairly regular basis, and yeah … a really fantastic, highly intelligent icon.
“Recently, I think he’s fallen off the perch a little, perhaps, but in a way, he’s doing what he’s always done – for good or ill, speaking his mind, I suppose.”
We’ve had this again recently, John Lydon photographed backing Brexit and Trump. All a bit odd, and disappointing. But because it’s Lydon, you think, does he really believe this, or is it just situationism and provocation nonsense, making you question everything?
Ian: “Yeah, like is it an artist statement and being post-modernist ironic? Ha!”
And is ‘Radio Edna’ still broadcasting, as per the song on your debut LP?
“Yeah, that was a real lady at the top of my street in Mill Hill. She had a corner shop. Basically, nowt got past her, y’know!”
Did she know about the song?
“No! I didn’t want to tell her, really. Mum and Dad used to get their loaf from there – I didn’t want to sour relations!”
Neil Arthur, of Blancmange fame, from nearby Darwen, told me a lovely story about an old dear back home – after he’d been on Top of the Pops with ‘Living on the Ceiling’ – calling him out for singing about being ‘up the bloody tree’ on national TV, bringing him back down to earth with a bang.
Ian: “Ha! Yeah, and Edna were a bit severe. She really was. She had tripe in the window and everything. Proper cornershop.”
Were you all originally from Blackburn?
Ewan: “Yeah, all scattered about really.”
Ian: “I’m from Mill Hill, which has a bit of a reputation, I suppose. That’s why I wrote ‘Gang of One’ – I didn’t really fit in with a lot of what was going on, and some incredibly dodgy characters.”
Ewan: “Certainly me and Ian came from quite rough neighbourhoods.”
I hope the Lancashire Telegraph doesn’t go big on this, open up the old wounds. And what brought you together? Why did you gravitate towards each other?
Ewan: “It was definitely a shared love of music which brought us to meet each other – a Blackburn Musicians’ Collective meeting. At the time we had a different singer, but I clocked Ian straight away and when I heard him play … He was performing as a solo artist with guitar, and, ‘This guy’s got a lot of talent and can sing really well’. No disrespect to our previous singer, but he was someone who made an impression on me straight away, and I thought it would be great if we could get him in the band. So we kind of hankered after that. Musically as well, we had so much in common – we liked the same kind of bands. It felt natural.”
Ian: “I was volunteering for this community arts (venture) and did my own fanzine there, Just 4 Minutes. It ran to 11 issues and in the last one I interviewed Paul Weller, then with The Style Council, that interview ending up in a book called Mr Cool’s Dream. I was also the chair of that collective – not the chairman, it was the 1980s, all very PC.
“I got people to fill in a form to see what their musical influences were, and when Ewan rocked up with his compadres, first I noticed how fucking cool they looked! A lot of it at the time was middle-class lads, long-ish hair, a bit grungey, ‘aren’t we rebels’. But these guys drifted in and looked sharp. Then I looked at the forms they filled in – it was The Clash, Redskins, Motown … Oh, my God, it was like a dream! All the bands I liked, but they’re in that band and I’m over here on my own. So that’s where it began really.”
Seeing as you mentioned The Clash, how about touring with Joe Strummer?
Ian: “Can I tell the story … about the underpants?”
Ewan: (side-stepping his bandmate’s question, but realising it won’t be long before ‘the tale is told’, as Morrissey would say) “Well, supporting Joe Strummer was the most amazing experience. The Clash were my No.1 band, so to be able to support Joe was an absolute dream come true. But it was more than just getting to play with him. We shared a dressing room, rocked up in the afternoon, spent time chatting to him, passing his Telecaster around …”
Ian: “It had the peeling ‘Ignore Alien Orders’ sticker on it, and was like some kind of Holy Grail. We all started picking it up, standing in front of the mirror. I’m left-handed and even I had a do! Then Joe walked in as we were messing around, and oh my God. We all kind of looked at him, and he just smiled, went over to a table and started skinning up. He made a joint like a sleeping bag. Unbelievable. Our bass player was so bombed off it, he couldn’t even soundcheck, he was so blown away! But Joe was doing them all night and managed a blinding performance.
“Also, I saw him get changed before I went on, and was deeply shocked to see he had purple Y-fronts. I mean, what underwear do you think Joe Strummer would wear?”
Joe was with his Latino Rockabilly War outfit at the time, touring the Earthquake Weather solo LP.
Ian: “We were trying to talk to him about the last days of The Clash, and he was really embarrassed about that final incarnation of the band.”
Ian’s now 56, with Ewan five years younger, but both saw The Clash play – Ian twice and Ewan half a dozen times, although both only saw the classic line-up once, on the 16 Tons tour at Blackburn in late January 1980, London Calling newly released.
Ewan: “The rest were on the Out of Control tour and a miners’ benefit. But yeah, just amazing.”
Ian: “I’ll tell you what, that gig at the King George’s Hall – flipping ‘eck! It’s hard to describe the intensity and power. What’s left of the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up just speaking about it! It was incredible, y’know.”
You also supported The Sugarcubes. Did you get to properly meet Björk?
Ian: “Well, there’s another story! Paris, December 1988, playing Elysee Montmartre, where the Sacre Coeur is, but also Pigalle, the Soho of Paris, getting lots of come-ons from transvestite prostitutes. Anyone with a street urchin look … a bit of an eye-opener, to say the least. But we met Björk backstage, and Einar (Örn Benediktsson) from the band was a bit embarrassed, thinking, ‘Oh no, here’s some real skinheads, and I’m just pretending!’ So he was hanging back a bit, but I asked Björk for an autograph. We had a Sugarcubes poster we’d ripped off the wall. She gave me a kiss on the cheek, laughed, and drew a very rude picture on it, writing a word I’ve never tried to translate. A dick and balls and this word. I don’t know if she was calling me a nobhead!”
You may not have fitted in with the Madchester scene, but I hear you in the band Gene – another band with a Stephen Street link – on their debut LP, Olympian from 1995. So were you just jinxed – was it bad timing on your part, missing out on more fame?
Ewan: “The band that became Gene, Sp!n, were stablemates of us on Foundation. That said, I’ve seen Martin Rossiter – maybe responding to Stephen Street – kind of suggest he didn’t know of us.”
In a sense, you went out with a fizzle in the end.
Ian: “Absolutely. It was so disappointing. I remember cockily signing off the dole with a ‘You won’t be seeing me here again’ sort of thing, then three years later had to sign on again with the same effing guy I’d more or less thrown a pen at and said, ‘See you later, mate – you’ll see me on Top of the Pops’. I’m back, saying, ‘Yeah, it’s Mr Hodgson, and I’m available for work’. Absolutely crushing.”
Ewan: “It was sad. We were really ground down as individuals, starting to fall out with each other. At one stage we thought it was gonna work, it was all going to happen, then it seemed to fall apart. And with the collapse of Foundation, we didn’t have an outlet for our music, and the gigs we played seemed to be the worst venues. It really got to us, yet if we’d held out a couple more years … the Britpop thing was right up our street, we’d have fallen with ease into that genre.”
So the rebirth is on some level at least about carrying on where you left off?
Ian: “I suppose. It’s a strange thing, but there’s nothing contrived. It’s all happened organically. Even with Stephen getting involved, we didn’t have a business meeting about it. He was impressed with the material we were sending him. It just feels right, and we’re convinced if people get to hear this record and it gets the right exposure, they’ll really enjoy it.”